ALTHOUGH they are, upon the whole, rude, dirty, and superstitious, I like no peasantry better than that among which I am in the habit of wandering in Brittany. They all seem to me picturesque in their minds, partly by reason of their sense of poetry, and partly because they retain so much of what was striking in the old customs and notions of their ancestors and ours. I make my head quarters at Nantes, and consider myself very happily surrounded.
Nantes itself is, to my mind, a magnificent city, clasped in the many arms of the great river Loire; a city of smiling islands and gay flat meadows full of flowers; a place of bridges, antique towers, and broad quays, bristling with masts from all nations. The towers and walls of the old Chateau de l’Hermine, once the seat of the Dukes of Brittany, though now serving as a powder-magazine, speak to me of days when gunpowder was not. So does the Cathedral; and there is no lack of stone sermons in the statues of the famous Duchess Anne, and her lineage, and those of the great captains De Clisson and Dugnesclin which are scattered about in the thirty or forty public squares that give air to the town.
It is worth the while of any man of leisure to come over and pass three or four weeks at Nantes; making excursions from thence to and fro by diligence, and establishing some sort of acquaintance with the country people.
Tracts have not superseded their legendary song; and many ballads, quite as touching and as tender as the ancient lays of Scotland, may be heard at this day from the lips of wandering bards, who sing, without a harp, matter familiar and dear to all the crowd that listens.
The Bretons are all born to song. Field-labourers in the villages, and workmen in the small towns, receive in Brittany little instruction beyond what the priests, who generally spring from their own ranks, afford. As they are imaginative and excitable, they supply their want of other knowledge by remembering long poems, which they recite to one another, and thus hand down to their children. They are themselves rude improvviatori, and make songs on every event of which they hear, turning the metre with considerable skill.
The most eminent of their poets in this kind are the millers, tailors, and a class of men called Pillaoners, in fact rag-men, gaberlunzie men. These last, wandering from town to town in pursuance of their calling, collect all the small talk, as well as all the political information that they pick up on the road, and have in all houses a sure welcome for their songs and sayings. Autolycus, who reads to us now like a fiction of the poet, continues to be a real person in Brittany.
An Autolycus is always supposed to be poor, and indeed almost comes under the denomination of beggar, he is looked upon with a certain reverential pity, that his conduct does not always merit. When he arrives at a village, he does not enter cottages unbidden, but observes a certain form that has been long established, and is at no time departed from. Pausing at a house-door, he says, “God bless you, people of this house; God bless you, little and big.” The invariable answer of those who expect a song, and do not grudge their pancakes is, “God bless you also, traveler, whoever you may be.”
Those pancakes, by the by, deserve a word of notice, since they are the staple diet of the people. They are made in large quantities at a time, placed one upon the other, pressed closely together, and the pile is cut as wanted, like a cheese. When a fresh batch of pancakes is turned out, the event is hailed, in a Breton household, as a something to be glad over; and that is not surprising considering the difference that there must be between stale and new pancake.
Besides Autolycus the gaberlunzie-man, there is a set of singers of a better class, equally popular. These singers are the poor students or clerks, who are young peasants destined for the Church. They are called Kloer in the Breton language, and travel from Episcopal town to another, meeting in bands at Tréguier, Léon, Kemper, and Vannes. To see them arrive in the costumes in which they left their villages, is a quaint sight. They still have their long hair floating down over their shoulders; and, when they have but lately joined, are remarkable for their wild eyes of enthusiasm. The great ambition of a Breton peasant is to have a son a priest; and the free life of a Kloer, candidate for future honours in the church, attracts youths of eighteen and twenty, quite as much as the glory promised to a soldier. These young men are all poets and singers. They live together in the suburbs of cathedral towns – to all appearance miserably enough, as their funds are very scanty, and possessed in common; however, they do live, and study properly for the career they have chosen. By degrees they lose their extreme rusticity, in consequence of being received in to what, to them, is good society; and it often naturally happens that, treated with great familiarity in many families, a devotee of nineteen years old meets with bright eyes that tell them to think twice before he makes himself a solitary priest. Perhaps he mistrusts the reality of his vocation, and abandons it. But since to do this is considered a disgrace, sad conflicts arise often between duty and inclination, and the poor young clerk fights a hard battle with himself, perplexing terribly his unripe judgment.
If “Heaven has all” he solaces his heart with verse, and his lays gain by the real feeling that his regret or his resolution puts into them. The Kloers never print their compositions, but nevertheless they have to bear the brunt of severe criticism. Critics are always ready in the tailors and the millers, who are envious of the superior knowledge of the clerks. The ragmen, too, if they must be outshone as bards, have their revenge as judges. When once a Kloer is an actual priest, his business is to decry and anathematize his former life; he therefore takes advantage of his liberty, while yet the sun is shining for him. But in his maturity the Breton preacher I think very eloquent, and the poetry of his old Kloer days often plays with a mild light over his religious exhortations.
The Breton instrument of music is a rebee with three chords, which serves to accompany the chanting of these rustic minstrels. Sometimes the air is composed at the moment, according to necessity and taste, and the same themes are constantly repeated, as well as the same chorus, which is generally something popular, well-known, and liked by the whole auditory. There is a strange charm about these songs, which put new thoughts into old diction, - for the Breton used by the peasants is the same language as that of the early bards, although the language of the educated classes in the province has been greatly modified. When the people sing the old ballads of the country, words and language fit together. No doubt centuries of oral tradition have worked change in these original traditions. Some of these are remarkable. Merlin, of course, figured in many, as in the old stories of Wales; but a favorite heroine is no other than Héloise, she of the “deep solitudes and awful cells.” She is here transformed into a sorceress of the very worst description, who, under the name of Loiza, is repeatedly apostrophized. The people listen with awe when she is named, and when they hear the words, “Loiza! Loiza, take heed for your soul! If this world is yours, the next belongs to God!” a shudder runs through the whole crowd. On days of Pardon, as the religious fairs are called, these crowds assemble in the squares of the great towns, and will listen, not for hours only, but for days together, to a drama that is being made while it is being acted. If a Breton singer happens to be a man of conscience as well as of talent, he can do much good. This was the case with a lame peasant of Basse-Cornouaille, who was exercising, a few years ago, a great influence over the people. He was nicknamed Loiz-Kam, or Louis the Lame, and looked like one of the dwarfs kept at the king’s court of old; he was full of sense, and wit, and quick perception. He had no objection to be thought a conjuror, and was not offended on the subject of his powers; such a belief gave him an advantage over his uneducated hearers, which he did not use for an ill purpose. Drunkenness prevails amongst the lower order of the Bretons, and, at their grand Pardons, it is seldom that the solemnity passes away without scenes of distressing brutality. Louis Kam always took occasion in his own parish, to attract an immense crowd round him; and by persuasive eloquence and vivid pictures, drawn in songs, upon the horror of this beastly vice, he achieved throughout his own district a triumph similar to that of Father Mathew.
Quite lately I happened to be witness of a scene at St. Pol de Léon, which was very striking and characteristic. There had been a frightful murder in the district, which, being the newest and most fascinating event, was chosen for his theme by a blind minstrel at the fair. A large crowd had assembled round him, and he had already named his subject, and prefaced his poem by an exordium, when he paused suddenly and addressed the auditors:
“Christians,” said he, “before we go further let us all say a Pater and a De profundis for the assassin and his victim.”
At these words he took off his hat, a movement which was generally followed. All made the sign of the cross; he then recited several expiatory prayers, to which the rest responded; having done that he resumed his ballad, and so went on to relate his story.
When cholera prevailed in Brittany, the wandering singers took that as their theme, and, instructed by the doctors and the authorities, put into song the proper remedies which should be used in treatment of the malady. Thus people were taught readily to take those precautions which their indolence or ignorance would in no other way have cared to study.
I have alluded to the great religious meetings of the Bretons, called their Pardons. They are quite peculiar to the province, and they date their origin back to the early ages after Druidism had disappeared. In face they are remnants of the ceremonies of the ancient pagans, of which a great number of vestiges occur in Brittany.
Every great Pardon lasts at least three days. On the eve of the first day all the bells of all the churches are set ringing; all the chapels are adorned with garlands and vases of fresh flowers; the saints in their niches, and over their alters, are dressed in the national costume; and in particular, the saint who is the patron of the district, is dressed like a bride or bridegroom, as the case may be. If the saint be a female, she has a white coif put upon her head, ornamented with a multitude of little mirrors, such as earthly brides in Brittany wear on the wedding-day. If the saint be a gentleman, he wears in his breast the customary bouquet, gay with floating ribbons, which distinguishes a bridegroom in his glory.
Towards evening the chapel is swept, and it is customary to throw chapel dust up into the air, in order that the wind may be favourable to those who are coming in from the adjacent islands on the marrow. Immediately afterwards all the gifts that are to be offered to the holy patron of the place, are spread out in a conspicuous part of the nave. These gifts are generally sacks of corn, hanks of flax, fleeces of young lambs or ewes, new hives of honey, and such rustic treasures. Less than a century ago it was usual at this time to dance in the chapel; but at present the dance takes place on the green in front, where there is sure to be a fountain dedicated to a saint.
Formerly the bonfire never was omitted late at night, but of late years even the bonfire has fallen a good deal into disuse. In some hamlets, however, it is still abided by, with all the rites thereto belonging. A high pole adorned with a garland is set up in the midst of light wood shavings and heather. To the light shavings fire is set, and the whole company, with wild cries, songs, and prayers, watches until the flame shall have leaped up high enough to catch the garland at the top. Directly after this has happened, all dance twelve times round the pole, and then the old men place a circle of stones round the fire, in the midst of which there is a cauldron fixed. Formerly meat for the priests used to be cooked in that pot, but now people content themselves by filling it with water. Children throw into the water, as it boils, pieces of metal, and then fixing bits of reed to the two handles, they cause the whole machine to discourse excellent music.
By daybreak the next morning visitors come in bands to the Pardon from all parts of Brittany, singing and shouting prayers. As soon as each band gets within sight of the church spire, all the people in it go down on their knees, and make the sign of the cross. If the Pardon be held in a town near the sea, the water is at this time covered with vessels, from every one of which proceeds the same choruses or prayer.
Sometimes whole cantons arrive at once, bringing the banners of their parishes, and headed by their priests. The clergy of the Pardon always advance to receive and welcome them.
After vespers there takes place a grand procession. The young men and the maids, in all the pomp of costume, walk in long close lines, with infinite devotion, followed by bands of sailors, who go barefooted and sometimes almost unclad, if they happen to have made vows when in fear of shipwreck. The procession pauses at the cemetery of the town, where prayers are said, and in these prayers it is usual for the lord of the manor and his family to join.
The whole level plain is covered by this time with tents, under which pilgrims pass the night in vigils, and in listening to the religious songs. The minstrels go from one part to another of the whole encampment, singing no songs that are not of a serious kind, because the whole of the first day of the Pardon must be spent in holy thoughts. Worldly amusements are to follow.
At dawn on the second day worldly thoughts and pleasures are permitted to rush in; then begin all the amusements of a fair, and its excesses. The Kloers may then sing their love-songs for the last time, if they mean to hold by their choice of the priestly calling. Then it is that those famous dramas are performed, which last several days, and which are the last exciting remnants of the Mysteries and Moralities that were the delight of our forefathers in almost all countries.
The Pardon here I described I saw at Rosporden in Finistére.
Back to Index